Getting to Know Alice Yorke of Lightning Rod Special

Playwright-director John Rosenberg continues his series of long-form interviews of varied creators and theater peeps with Alice Yorke of Lightning Rod Special. (Read other interviews in this series.)

Press photo for Lightning Rod Special's SANS EVERYTHING.

Press photo for Lightning Rod Special’s SANS EVERYTHING.

John Rosenberg: Who are you?

Alice Yorke: Alice Yorke. I’m a co-director of Lightning Rod Special, the lead artist on our upcoming show The Appointment [runs March 20-31, 2019, at FringeArts] and a freelance actor, director, producer. I love a good cookie, a good cloud, and the beach.

John Rosenberg: Why did you say it like that?

Alice Yorke: I used the first person so you know it’s really me talking.

John Rosenberg: If you were a casting director, how would you describe you?

Alice Yorke: Quirky best friend weirdo, or like, slightly hip young mom.

John Rosenberg: When we were trying to schedule this interview you mentioned you were working from Thursday to Saturday and I assumed you work as a firefighter. Are you a firefighter? If not, do you know anyone who is a firefighter?

Alice Yorke: I put out fires, yeah.

John Rosenberg: Why is the company called Lightning Rod Special?  

Alice Yorke: We chose that name because of the literary figure the lightning rod salesman, who is a bit of a trickster. We tossed around different variants on the phrase but when someone suggested Lightning Rod Special, we couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a little off, a little intriguing, a little unexpected. It’s a bit of nominative determinism that we make work about lightning rod topics, really.

John Rosenberg: Were there any other names in the running?

Alice Yorke: Lots. Our favorite reject was “Poundcake” which we joke is what our clown troupe is called.

John Rosenberg: Who are the core members of Lightning Rod Special?

Alice Yorke: Myself, Scott Sheppard, and Mason Rosenthal are the co-directors. Katie Gould and Jenn Kidwell are founding company members. Alex Bechtel, Oona Curley, and Rebecca Kanach round out the company.

John Rosenberg: How do programming decisions get made in LRS? Is it by consensus? Is it by screaming and fighting?  

Alice Yorke: Hah. Programming decisions happen pretty naturally, actually. Somebody will suggest something that they’re thinking about and we’ll have a short workshop around it; we get into a rehearsal room for a day or two and see how people interact with the material. Because we generally only produce one show a year and shows take up to three years to create, sometimes the work on new shows is more marinating/meditating. Ideas that we keep coming back to will generally turn into something.  We like to say we work like a kitchen: that we always have dishes being consumed, dishes being plated, and dishes being created.

(We save screaming and fighting for the rehearsal room, like any good ensemble.)

John Rosenberg: Have you ever had to deal with dissension or ill will in a show?  

Alice Yorke: Yes. Making Sans Everything, our collaboration with Strange Attractor Theatre Company, was really hard for all of us involved. There were 10 or 11 of us working together to write and produce the show, all with different interests and strengths. Writing as a group is Not Easy. We worked really, really intensively on moving through those problems and ended up making a show that reflected that struggle while being about something else entirely. Most importantly, we all still love each other.ing.

John Rosenberg: What has been the evolution of LRS? Giant steps forward?

Alice Yorke: Hm. This question is intriguing. It’s difficult to track evolution from the inside, especially while it’s still happening. I would say it’s been a lot of learning things the hard way and asking people for advice. The giant step forward has been getting Quickbooks.

John Rosenberg: What things have LRS had to learn the hard way? Who has LRS turned to for advice?  

Alice Yorke: We’re performers and writers and directors by trade. None of us have a background in arts admin, so everything related to producing and administrating (I mean, creating a budget, talking with funders, writing grants, day to day maintenance, digital marketing, crafting an annual appeal, courting producers, dealing with L&I, getting insurance, I could go on…) all that stuff we learned the hard way. Sometimes we talk with peers like the Orbiter 3 folks, Almanac, Berserker Residents, and sometimes the elder statesmen like Artists U, Headlong, and Pig Iron. Ars Nova, who produced Underground Railroad Game in NYC has also been an indispensable resource. We ask a lot of people for advice and are lucky that the people around us are generous with their knowledge.

John Rosenberg: How much do LRS shows usually cost?

Alice Yorke: $60-70K is generally how much a public production costs, but that’s not accounting for workshop and development time.

John Rosenberg: Do you have a dream show you would create if budget was no object?

Alice Yorke: Yes, just like most of us have a dream life we’d lead if we win a billion dollars in the lottery. But I’m more interested in the life I’d lead–and the show I’d make–with a no-strings-attached $400,000. (Which seems positively wholesome next to $1,000,000,000!)

John Rosenberg: What won’t i see at a Lightning Rod Special show?

Alice Yorke: I love this question because the first three things I thought to myself are things we’ve already done in shows. The key is that we’re taking those things and turning them inside out.

I’ll say this: You won’t see lazy writing. You may not like the writing you see, but we are relentless and ruthless editors of our work. Nothing goes into a show if we aren’t satisfied with it. Jenn and Scott were re-writing Underground Railroad Game up until opening night in New York—their stage manager had to force them to stop making changes.

Lightning Rod Special's UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME. Photo by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg

Lightning Rod Special’s UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME. Photo by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg

John Rosenberg: A few months ago, friend gave me a legally purchased copy of Underground Railroad Game. She mentioned I think I would like it. Internally, I bristled at her observation and I haven’t read it yet (now I have a reason to!). I in turn will see a movie that i think my dad would like and mention he might like it. I of course get annoyed when he won’t see it. What the fuck is that all about?

Alice Yorke: Man, that’s good old human exceptionalism right there. “What’s good for me is different than what’s good for you because I am different from you.” Everyone does it all the time. I mean, I don’t obviously, but everyone else does. (Also, read the book.)

John Rosenberg: How did you come to be in Philadelphia as a member of Lightning Rod Special?

Alice Yorke: I came to Philly in 2011 to be part of the first class of Pig Iron’s graduate program. I hadn’t heard of Pig Iron before applying to their program and had only been to Philly twice before moving here. But it was a leap of faith that paid off. I met the people who would become my collaborators and we made our first show together in 2012– it was called “Hackles” and it remains one of my favorite things we’ve made together.

John Rosenberg: What did Pig Iron prepare you to do?  

Alice Yorke: Make strange, whole characters. Work with and running an ensemble. Not settle for just “good enough.” See time physically.

John Rosenberg: What did Pig Iron not prepare you for?

Alice Yorke:  Retirement.

John Rosenberg: Where were you before you were in Philly?

Alice Yorke: Living back home in NJ, working at a vegan cafe, running half marathons and spending my free time on the beach.

John Rosenberg: What is your favorite beach?

Alice Yorke: I’m keeping my favorite beach a secret because the thing I like about it is that it’s never crowded.

John Rosenberg: What do you do at the beach?

Alice Yorke: I like to go to the beach with a towel, a chair, an umbrella, a book, a sandwich and chips. The beach always makes me want salty things like chips. I like to lie in the sun until I’m too hot to move, jump in the freezing cold water, swim a bunch, get out and read or nap. Repeat for several hours.

John Rosenberg: Do you make the sandwich you take to the beach or is there a place you go to? Hopefully if you say the name of the place you buy the sandwiches i can figure out where the beach is.

Alice Yorke: Sometimes I make the sandwich and sometimes I go to this cute little local place called Wawa.

John Rosenberg: Are you funny?

Alice Yorke: Yes.

John Rosenberg: What kind of funny are you?

Alice Yorke: Good timing.

Alice Yorke, Corinna Burns, and Dave Johnson in WE CAN ALL AGREE TO PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED (Photo credit: Ilana Caplan)

Alice Yorke, Corinna Burns, and Dave Johnson in WE CAN ALL AGREE TO PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, Azuka Theatre, 2014. Photo credit: Ilana Caplan.

John Rosenberg: What are some of the routines you adhere to in your life?

Alice Yorke: Oooh, I love a routine. In general I wake up at 7 every day, drink a big glass of lemon water, take a shower, half-ass my way through 20 minutes of gentle yoga, and do about four hours of LRS work on my computer. Then I go to my day job. Other routines: I go to therapy every Wednesday. I do my laundry every Sunday. I change my contacts the first of every month. I don’t do computer work after 7pm. I get happy hour with one of my best friends every other week. I’m not compulsive about these things; rules were made to be broken. But I do really love me some structure.

John Rosenberg: Is there anyone in your life you like to put in positions where they will disappoint you?  

Alice Yorke: Damn. I mean, my ex-boyfriends?

John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel negative?

Alice Yorke: Shit dude, these are intense questions. I’M INTO IT.

Hate spirals for me are about worthlessness. At my worst, I feel like I don’t matter, that nobody cares about me, that I could disappear and not a single person would notice. In a more every day way, it feels like I’m not good enough/interesting enough/smart enough to make art/post on Facebook/ask for help, etc etc.

John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel positive?

Alice Yorke: That feeling is like a glow; that feeling goes all outward. When I’m feeling really good about myself, I’m calling my friends, I’m smiling at strangers, I’m floating in a little bubble and the negative stuff rolls off my back.

John Rosenberg: Can you change how you feel if you are in a bad mood or don’t like how you feel?

Alice Yorke: Sometimes but that’s not easy. I have to really deeply acknowledge the source of the mood (stress/fear/hunger/hormones/fatigue, etc) and how rational it is. Then I have to actively change what else is going on at the moment (leave the house/turn on music/take a shower/call a friend). But, yeah, that’s hard to do.

John Rosenberg: What do you tend to have a blind spot regarding?

Alice Yorke: Being polite when I’m hungry.

John Rosenberg: How many different versions of you are there?

Alice Yorke: Two: With food. And without.

John Rosenberg: What are you incredibly cautious regarding?

Alice Yorke: Spending large sums of money.

John Rosenberg: How much money do you think I have?  

Alice Yorke: More than me but not by much.

John Rosenberg: Do you have a code you live by?

Alice Yorke: Always be helping others.

THE GAP

Alice Yorke, Jaime Maseda & Jack Henry in Azuka Theatre’s THE GAP, 2017.

John Rosenberg: What do you seek when you go onstage?  

Alice Yorke: I want the audience with me. Hooked.

John Rosenberg: How do you direct actors?

Alice Yorke: By listening.

John Rosenberg: Does that mean you have a clear idea of what a play is and are ushering the actors towards that vision or do you have no idea and figure it out together?

Alice Yorke:  Mostly I’m interested in figuring things out together. I definitely have ideas, but I try to remain flexible to what’s going on in the room and what an actor’s ideas are.

John Rosenberg: If you are feeling underwater or lost on stage, can you change how you feel?

Alice Yorke: You gotta give yourself a good mental slap across the face and say “Get it together, [last name].” Then listen to others more than yourself. If you’re the only one on stage, listen to the audience.

John Rosenberg: What is the closest you have had an idea in your head and then seen it actualized in reality?

Alice Yorke: Honestly, The Appointment is that. I wanted to make a satire of the idea that a fetus has more rights and importance than does the person carrying it, and I wanted it to feature fetuses who danced and sang and raged about this. It’s happened more than once that someone in the room suggested an idea/song/scene/character that I’ve always been hungry for but never mentioned to anyone. That’s a little what I mean in the previous question about listening to the room. The room provides.

John Rosenberg: Every time I go to see a play, I always learn something. Sometimes it is how an emotional truth is captured or a production element beyond my imagination that stuns me. Are there lessons from shows you have seen?

Alice Yorke: Yes yes yes. I think my favorite moments like this are about magic or disbelief. I don’t ever actually want to know how a magic trick happens, but I also REALLY WANT TO KNOW. I also really like learning about theater from non-theatrical events. I’ve learned a lot about taking care of an audience and cohesive storytelling from bad weddings, quickly organized crafting events, and political rallies.

John Rosenberg: A few years ago, I saw a German Expressionist art exhibit where one of the pieces was a German DADA magazine. The magazine was from the early 1930s and on the cover was a photo collage lampooning Nazi belief in phrenology with a joke about cheese for brains. I doubt that magazine made someone take the swastika off their arm. What is the responsibility of art within society? Do you think of art as a weapon? Do perceive art as a means of effective change?

Alice Yorke: This question gets me all riled up. 10/10 would do a follow up longform interview on this subject alone. Fuck yes art can be a weapon. And a powerful, provocative one, at that. There is, however, an important balance to be struck between being reckless and dangerous for the sake of weaponized, political art and being sanitized and kidglove-y for the sake of niceness and safety. And like any weapon, you have to know how to wield it. We have a responsibility to know how much pushing of an audience is needed and in what ways or directions. (And frankly, I think it’s just as dangerous to make art where you show off how good and aware, how “woke,” you are without actually saying anything. That’s just self-important bullshit.)

Yeah, that collage probably didn’t make a Nazi take off their swastika, but it may have helped someone who was a passive acceptor of Nazism rethink their complicity. That’s the kind of change art can make. That’s the kind of change I’m interested in.

John Rosenberg: What is your relationship to reviews of your work?  

Alice Yorke: It depends whether it’s a Lightning Rod Special show. If it’s not, like for “The Gap” at Azuka, I didn’t read those reviews until late in the run. I wanted to just settle into doing the show and not being concerned about how people were talking about it. But for LRS shows, I have to read the reviews and audience responses because I do all our marketing.

John Rosenberg: As an artist, is your perception of self-worth tied to your work?

Alice Yorke: Woof. It definitely has been at different times in my life. I’ve been trying to recenter that perception, though, because it can be dangerous and difficult. I’m trying to acknowledge that the things which make me “an artist” are greater than who is calling me, what I’m working on, and how visibly productive I am. 

John Rosenberg: What advice would you give yourself in the future?

Alice Yorke: Go to the beach. It helps.

John Rosenberg: Do you speak any other languages?

Alice Yorke: French.

John Rosenberg: What do you think my son is named?

Alice Yorke: Horace.

John Rosenberg: No. Do you shop at Ross Dress For Less?

Alice Yorke: Hell yes. One of my favorite pairs of shoes is from there.

Alice Yorke (right) in THE APPOINTMENT, 2019.

Alice Yorke (right) in THE APPOINTMENT, 2019.

John Rosenberg: What shoes?

Alice Yorke: Gray, flat heeled knee-high boots that look rather expensive but cost me $20. I bought them three years ago and they’re still kicking.

John Rosenberg: Where did you learn your style from?

Alice Yorke: I assume you mean my handwriting style, which I realized recently, upon finding an old postcard from my grandmother, is almost letter for letter exactly like hers was.

John Rosenberg: What was the first concert you went to?

Alice Yorke: I saw 98 Degrees, Tatyana Ali…

John Rosenberg: Fuck yes, Tatyana Ali.

Alice Yorke: …and this white boy rap group called EYC (“Express Yo’Self Clearly”) at the All That Concert Tour. MaryBeth Dinberg and Keenan Thompson would do all these All That-style skits in between the music acts and you could sign up to audition to be on All That, which I REALLY wanted to do.

John Rosenberg: Do you remember the first time you realized you were going to die?  

Alice Yorke: I was walking to school with my brother and his friends when I was six and they were 8. We came to a main road and they all crossed without me. I ran to catch up to them and almost got hit by a car.

John Rosenberg: What type of character haven’t you had the opportunity to play?  

Alice Yorke: Someone mean.

John Rosenberg: What kind of mean character are you interested in playing?

Alice Yorke: I often play really nice, caring people because I’m a nice, caring person and you can read that all over me (like, people assume I’m vegetarian before we’ve even spoken). So I’d love to play someone who can’t be bothered with other people’s shit.

John Rosenberg: Do you have any monologues or passages from plays memorized?

Alice Yorke: No. Only shadows of monologues I’ve known before.

John Rosenberg: Where have you been that you are most certain I have never been?

Alice Yorke: My house.

John Rosenberg: What adorns the walls of your home?

Alice Yorke: Art that friends made or gave me. Art I found on the street. A photo of Elizabeth Taylor giving the double bird. A wall calendar. An analog clock (two, actually). And a decorative lifesaver.

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About the author

John Rosenberg

John Rosenberg founded Hella Fresh Theater in 2009.